THREE DAYS IN HELL
Santa Cruz, Bolivia, April 7, 2012:

Palmasola Prison, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, is a modern-day Dante's Inferno. But instead of  the Roman poet Virgil guiding visitors through this modern-day underworld, my passage  is shepherded by a good man named Jacob. 

When one thinks "Bolivian Prison," one might think 'barbarian.' But really, that word is so inadequate in this case. 

Palmasola itself is a series of concentric rings of walls and barbed wire. In the center ring is a squalid slum where the prisoners--and their children--live, and into which guards venture only a few times a day when all of the prisoners stand for roll call. (Unless, of course, you are one of the hundreds who have enough money to bribe your way out of appearing for roll call.) In actual fact, the prison is completely run by a mafia of powerful prisoners. They charge the others for their cells, taxes on "imported" items and privileges, and extortion money. Those who cannot afford to pay for a cell sleep in the gutter. Food is a gulag-style gruel served once a day for those who lack the dinero to have their food brought in.  This is my third day with Jacob, an American incarcerated in the hell that is Palmasola, for a crime he did not commit. I would call it purgatory, but the concept of purgatory implies a temporary stay. There is no such promise at Palmasola.

There are many Americans in foreign jails who have earned their way there. Jacob is not one of them. And few human beings, even those guilty of crimes, have "earned" Palmasola. Open sewers run through the streets (yes, streets), and the prison garbage dump shares a plot of land with the prison kitchen. Cocaine sales, prostitution and footbol games are all equally sanctioned and 'above board.' They also take place within 20 yards of each other.  I saw all three of these recreational activities occur just today inside the prison.   It occurred to me  while strolling past the cocaine "store" yesterday with Jacob, that with cocaine in the prison selling at approximately 1/100 of the price of cocaine on the outside, users should just find a friend to start visiting.  Prostitution is even more convenient. Prisoners at the female prison within the same walls pay 10 Bolivianos ($1.50) for entry into the men's side, and charge 30 Bolivianos ($4.37) for each "trick." Or you can pay more for any of the local professionals who come in from town. This is not only endorsed, but facilitated by the authorities who rule the prison. And who are those authorities? The prisoners with the most power, of course.  And power is determined by money and/or violence.

That the prison is run by prisoners is not a figure of speech implicitly condemning an inefficient or corrupt system; it is a fact, of which the Bolivian government is proud. They have intentionally and officially ceded control of the interior of the prison to the prisoners. All the Bolivian guards do is essentially form a blockade around Palmasola so that no one escapes and only those things that the guards are paid to allow in are imported. Oh, and they drag out the bodies of the prisoners who are killed, usually on the average of on a month; and usually at the hands of the security prisoners. 

Members of the Disciplina Interna ("Internal Discipline," an appropriately chilling name) patrol the prison and enforce regulations, social convention and the power of the ruling prisoners. To be a member of the Interna Disciplina, you must of course be a prisoner and you must be sentenced to 30 years or more, which ensures that the very people who enforce "order" in the prison are those that committed the most heinous crimes. The huge person I paid to protect me, "Moso," is at least notionally one of the least violent ones; he only killed one woman. In reality, the Disciplina Interna are uniformed thugs who demand protection money from prisoners and visitors alike. Al Capone would be proud. 

In the middle of this hell is Jacob Ostreicher, a grandfather from Brooklyn who made the mistake of trying to start a rice farm in Bolivia. Actually, the mistake was not so much starting the farm, the mistake was being successful. When you are successful in Bolivia, you have money. If you have money, you might not support the ruling socialist party. If you don't support the ruling socialist party, you might give your money to a party in opposition to the people in charge. Then you are a threat to Evo Morales, the megalomaniac in charge of Bolivia. When you are a threat to Evo, you go to Palmasola. 

The prison is full of thieves and people more corrupt than you have likely experienced. And now I'm speaking of course, of the uniformed Bolivian guards who grant visitors access to the village of the damned. I have spent three days in this "prison" and each day, I have been robbed by guards who look me in the eye with a shameless "What are you going to do about it?" smirk as they took my money. Using a note written in Spanish that says that I do not speak their language (which I actually do), allowed me to hear the guards ridicule me, Americans and our culture. Entering the prison, visitors are branded with permanent ink stamps and 'Sharpie'-applied numbers. When I entered the first day, the guard told the line of Bolivians (in Spanish), "Instead of black ink, I'll use green for the gringo." Hilarity ensued. 
Jacob Ostriecher has been condemned to this hell because he had money, and he has so far refused to pay the bribes required for release. He has been in this hell for 11 months, and no trial for the trumped-up charges is even on the horizon, though he longs to have a chance to prove his innocence. In the meantime, he endures the beatings, the abuse and the extortion. 

Every night, I leave the prison promptly at 6:30 p.m. (the penalty for being late is spending the night in prison), suffering from a type of "survivor's guilt" . My guilt is from knowing that Jacob cannot leave, and that he is no more guilty of a crime than am I. 

Tomorrow, I go back. But every day as I leave, I wonder why the United States has a State Department. And I wonder where they are--and if they suffer from survivor's guilt. 

 
 


Comments

Noel Dalberth
04/08/2012 00:01

How frightening. It is deplorable that innocent American citizens are at the mercy of this hell with no support from their own government. It sickens me that our State Dept refuses to protect its own people. This is exactly why Jason Puracal was arrested and convicted of crimes he absolutely did not commit. Apparently making $ in a foreign country is a sentence to life in hell (aka prison).

Reply
04/08/2012 09:39

Steve, This is very moving, especially your final comment about the State Department. I have forwarded this to a buddy of mine in State, Larry Tobey, my college roommate. Let's see what he says.

Reply
Leon Samson
04/09/2012 11:46

My heart goes out to Jacob and his family. I'm hoping now that you have given a first hand report, someone in the Untied States State department will investigate this case and do all it can for his safe return.

Reply
Josh
04/09/2012 12:11

A chilling account, seems totally surreal. It is hard to even imagine that something like this can happen, and so out in the open no less. The poor man! What can we do to help get him out?

Reply
bocagrande
04/11/2012 04:35

The man is screwed. He's just another a political pawn in Evo's game with the USA. So much for the human right of due process. And don't expect any big movements from State. They need to worry about much bigger problems like whether or not Evo will make them all go home tomorrow because he has a temper tantrum. Two words folks..ESCAPE and/or BRIBES. Outside of that, the man has a long long wait ahead of him. That is if he isn't knifed first in there.

Reply
Rick Bonin
04/11/2012 13:24

Steve, your report is nothing short of chilling, I was totally riveted. Life in that prison is worse than any movie I have ever seen or could possibly imagine. Your courage for even going in that hellhole is to be commended. I deparately hope that you can get the attention of the State Department on behalf of Jacob.

Reply
Eric Ketchum
04/11/2012 15:20

Steve, you are at it again. I hope that word spreads and this man is free soon!!

Reply
Tom Mininger
04/15/2012 16:50

Mr. Moore, this is real investigative journalism, something very rare in today's media.

Reply
JBWYI
04/17/2012 09:43

What can we the "Public" do to help?

Reply
Josh
05/08/2012 21:44

Jacob's family launched a website http://www.freejacobnow.org. Please sign the petition and forward it to all your contacts. Also contact the politicians listed on the website.

Reply
Chai You
04/19/2012 10:07

Check out this article, anyone wonder where the Bolivians all of a sudden got surplus in rice? WHAT A BUNCH OF GANGSTERS!!!

http://www.globalmeatnews.com/Industry-Markets/Bolivian-producers-welcome-opening-of-export-market

Reply
05/04/2012 21:20

I continue to be reminded why I book you at speaking engagements. Your ability to share human stories with all of us is remarkable, educational and deeply moving. Thank you for advocacy work.

Reply
Joseph
05/13/2012 02:19

God please help Jacob come home very fast.
Amen

Reply
Dina
05/14/2012 01:21

This is just awful. Is there anything at all that we - the public - can do?

Reply
Dina DeMalchuso
05/14/2012 10:25

A member of any society has rules and regulations to follow. These requirements may or may not seem fair... moral... nice... add your own here... HOWEVER as members and we as Jewish members must abide by the laws. One of our many responsibility to each other is to care enough about the other person to help him/her to make the right choices. Denying the truth can be harmful. You imply Jacobs "crime" is that he made money. May I suggest that his crime is "not paying the fines". Lets us pray and truly assist Jacob to gain his freedom and at that time he can make a business decision to stay and pay future fines or leave and open elsewhere.

Reply
Steve Moore
05/18/2012 00:43

Dear Dina (DeMalchuso):

I fear that I have been unclear in what I wrote, or you have decided not to believe what I have said. I have no idea what "fines" you are speaking of. I have no idea what 'truth' Jacob and/or I am 'denying.' If you believe you have proof that Jacob has committed a crime, I invite you to do something here that the Bolivian government has so far been unable to do: Provide proof that a crime was committed, and then, provide ANY proof that Jacob committed any crime.

No "fines" have been levied, discussed, or even referred to. Jacob has not been given a trial, which would be required before any punishment (such as a fine) could be levied. Thank you for your interest in his freedom. But accepting a third-world country's "justice" without question is dangerous for the individual, for society and for people everywhere.

Reply
08/19/2013 03:33

Thanks for sharing the experiences at Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Indeed an interesting post. I have been there at Santa Cruz once. I mean a while back, years back! The situation has changed a lot now. Everything changed in Santa Cruz.

Reply
10/30/2013 06:22

good post thanks for sharing this

Reply

Your comment will be posted after it is approved.


Leave a Reply